Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Shepherd to a Civilisation

Rajiv Malhotra is fast becoming one of my intellectual heroes.

Indians and India-watchers would find this seminar talk and round-table discussion of his very interesting. The talk and subsequent discussion cover a number of points but they essentially centre around the need to reclaim the intellectual treasures of Indian thought from under the avalanche of western analysis, critique and frequent misappropriation that has all but buried them over the last few centuries. The clip is a little long at about an hour and a half but I personally found it fascinating.

An interesting point he makes is that Chinese civilisation has begun to reassert itself in the wake of increased economic self-confidence. The Chinese are beginning to reject the Protestant work ethic as a model for development in favour of their home-grown Confucian work ethic. I like this because I believe that in many contexts, there is no single truth (indeed, no reason why we should wish for a single truth), but many different, equally valid, approaches. "Let a thousand flowers bloom" seems the apt thing to say in this context ;-).

An earlier talk of his on some of the ways in which Indian civilisational thinking differs from the Western/Abrahamic tradition is also very interesting.

[I have listened to his talks at non-Indian venues also, but he seems more guarded and formal in his language when speaking to non-Indian audiences. It's when he speaks at Indian fora that he is at his relaxed, colloquial and humour-laced best. That's why both the samples I've selected are of him speaking in India.]

[Update 23/02/2012: A clip of his address to students of Somaiya College, Mumbai is also likely to be very inspirational to Indian youth. It's a wonderful critique of current Indian attitudes and an exhortation to develop greater self-esteem.]

Let me explain where I'm coming from in all of this. I am the product of two mindsets. By virtue of my English-medium education, my upper-middle class, academically-inclined family background, and my reading habits that predominantly favoured English language books by Western authors, I am highly Westernised in the way I think. However, I also have a great curiosity and love for various cultures, languages, and civilisational histories. I have a science background and abhor superstition, yet remain interested in superstitions as historical cultural artifacts. I'm very wary of organised religion yet remain fascinated by religion as a social phenomenon. I think it's fair to say I have a universalist view of humanity, yet want to experience human civilisation in all its flavours.

Curiously, as I have developed in this universalist worldview, I have rediscovered my interest in India. There may be some truth in the view that an English language education tends to make Indians embarrassed about their own culture. If so, then I'm only now beginning to be secure enough to take pride in the civilisation that I'm a part of. But so far, I have had no trailblazers to follow. Most middle-class, English-educated Indians tend to be of the faintly embarrassed variety who fall back on an aseptic "secularism" that denies all civilisational uniqueness. Those who embrace their Indianness (specifically their Hindu-ness), on the other hand, tend to be jingoistic in their cultural pride and their views tend to be exclusivist and often denigrating of other cultures (especially Islamic and Western cultures). There has been no middle path to follow, until now.

I realise now that Rajiv Malhotra is the cultural thought leader (dare I use my civilisational term guru?) I have been waiting for.

Rajiv Malhotra is a remarkable "civilisational thinker" who may be single-handedly igniting a renaissance in original Indian thought - a worldview that is neither slavishly westernised nor chauvinistically anti-western but independent, self-confident and assertive. He isn't part of any -ism or any contemporary political grouping but is a genuine academic and philosopher.

I would say he is a shepherd to a civilisation that seems to have lost its way, and more importantly, its nerve.
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